The University of Washington is one of 13 major research universities teaming up under a $70 million federal grant to form the world's largest network dedicated to studying science on the smallest of scales.
The National Science Foundation authorized funding this week for the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network, or NNIN, an integrated nationwide system that will support research and education in nanoscale science, engineering and technology.
"This is the largest nanotech network that has ever existed," said Viola Vogel, director of the Center for Nanotechnology in the UW's College of Engineering. "Being a member of this network is an incredible honor and a great opportunity for the UW."
Nanoscience is the study of matter at the molecular level and holds the promise of transforming the way we live. Tiny switches, shuttles, and materials that react to their environment on the molecular level could lead to such innovations as buildings and bridges that "heal" themselves, self-repairing clothing, powerful computers the size of a button and medical probes smaller than cells that help the body heal or attack disease organisms directly.
The network, led by Cornell University, is expected to officially begin operation in January for a five-year period and represents a large leap forward in the nation's ability to push the boundaries of nanoscience, according to Lawrence Goldberg, NSF senior engineering adviser.
"NNIN expands significantly beyond the current capabilities of the five-university National Nanofabrication Users Network, which is concluding its 10-year life span this year," Goldberg said. "The network will be an investment of at least $70 million under NSF's nanoscale science and engineering priority area."
Of that sum, about $5 million will go to the UW.
Each site involved in the network has a specific task that complements the rest of the organization, Vogel said. The UW's key role will be to explore and build the interface between nanoscience and biomedicine.
The UW, she added, is an ideal choice for such work.
"We have a renowned medical school and top nanotech faculty in close proximity," Vogel said. "We will greatly expand our Nanotech User Facility to provide biomedical researchers access to nanotools, further explore how biological nanosystems work, and then use that knowledge to inspire new technology."
The network is intended to be inclusive of the scientific community at large, according to Sandip Tiwari, a Cornell electrical engineer and director of the NNIN, "offering to share our specialized resources with any and all qualified users."
Such a policy, Goldberg said, will not only give scientists around the country access to leading-edge tools and instruments, but will help create a workforce skilled in nanotechnology and the latest laboratory techniques.
"It will also develop the intellectual and institutional capacity needed to examine and address societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology," he added.
In addition to the UW and Cornell, members of the network are the Georgia Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Howard University, North Carolina State University, Pennsylvania State University, Stanford University, the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota, the University of New Mexico and the University of Texas at Austin.
The NSF anticipates holding future competitions to expand the scope of the NNIN by adding new sites and capabilities as the need arises, officials said, providing flexibility within the program.